Can Small Words Predict Future Educational Success?


According to a new study from the University of Texas at Austin, college admissions essays may have more to say about the chance of college success than simply offering a glimpse into a prospective student’s personality.

The study, When Small Words Foretell Academic Success: The Case of College Admissions Essays, discovered that specific words within a college admissions essay could provide a look into a prospective students’ chances of performing better in their college career or receiving a higher GPA.

Researchers discovered that function words, small and commonly used words, hold more power than using lengthy words within those essays, writes Alex Samuels for USA Today.

“Function words allow us to assess how people are thinking more than what they are thinking about,” James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at UT and co-author of the paper, said in the report.

Co-author David Beaver, who is also a professor in the linguistics and philosophy departments at UT, said students found to have the most academic potential in the study were those who showed “categorical thinking.”

These thinkers have the ability to focus on the way things and concepts are related, and tend to use small words such as ““the,” “an,” “on” and “in” on a more regular basis than other students.  By comparison, “dynamic thinkers” view the world on a more personal level, using wording such as “I” and “they” more often.

“We take the way people use language to reflect the way they are using language. So someone who uses categorical language is presumably thinking about the way things relate and the way they are categorized. Someone who uses dynamic language is thinking more about people and their stories.”

Researchers looked at the computerized analysis of the language used in 50,000 admissions essays provided by 27,975 hopeful college students who had “enrolled into a large, state university as first year students from the years 2004 and 2007.”  They then looked at how that language later affected the GPA of each student.

Most importantly, Beaver says, prospective students should not spend time worrying about their language.  Instead, they should focus on getting their message across.

“Admissions offices are looking for people who exhibit intellectual maturity, for students who are able to go beyond the immediate personal narrative,” Beaver says. “When I was very young, my great aunt was fond of saying that when washing, clean the back of your hands, and the fronts will take care of themselves. Likewise, students should not worry about function words. If you focus on expressing interesting ideas, the function words will take care of themselves.

02 11, 2015
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